CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 41. . . .June 20, 2014
Sophie, In Shadow.
Saskatoon, SK: Thistledown, 2014.
241 pp., trade pbk., html & pdf, $15.95 (pbk.).
ISBN 978-1-927068-94-6 (pbk.), ISBN 978-1-77187-016-0 (html), ISBN 978-1-77187-017-7 (pdf).
Grades 8-11 / Ages 13-16.
Review by Kris Rothstein.
For Sophie, as it had for Alexandra, the silence and solitude of the mountains began to work its magic. Together they went on long tramps over windswept ridges and boulder-strewn heights, across waterfalls and into high valleys filled with chains of glassy turquoise lakes. More than once they climbed to the northern frontier. Beyond those passes lay the vast Tibetan tableland – that mysterious country Alexandra so passionately wished to explore.
But there was no more talk of astral travel – nor ever any mention of sorcerers and demons. If Alexandra continued to study that arcane part of Tibetan belief, she did not speak of it to Sophie. Instead, she taught her mantras, meditations, breathing exercises designed to quiet her troubled spirit and lead it into a calm, silent place.
Sophie Pritchard survived the sinking of the Titanic, but her parents did not. Now an orphan at 16, she has travelled with an aunt to a new home with relatives in Calcutta. She easily bonds with her vibrant cousin, Jean Grenville-Smith, who is an author who does not seem to actually write. She also loves her young cousin Alex, a spitfire who is full of energy. Despite the noise, the heat, the multitude of servants and the strange new city, Sophie falls into a routine. Occasionally something strange happens – Jean’s clandestine meetings, a fainting spell and vision in Kali’s temple – but, for the most part, everything seems stable in her new life. Sophie tells Jean about her vision in which she seemed to experience the past, and Jean suggests she explore the gift.
When the family heads to the hills of Darjeeling for the summer, events speed up. Sophie finally meets the famous Alexandra, Jean’s best friend, who is a Buddhist, a mystic and adventurer. Alexandra encourages Sophie to stay in her hermitage and learn meditation in order to understand her visions. World War One is in full swing, and there are wounded soldiers and possible spies to keep things life interesting. Young Alex is kidnapped, and it is Sophie’s visions which allow her to be rescued. Back in Calcutta, Sophie foresees a terrorist attack and has to figure out how to thwart it without drawing the negative attention of local officials.
Sometimes Sophie allows herself to yearn for the privileged and conventional life she expected in England. But, for the most part, Sophie represses her memories and tries to get through one day at a time, adapting to her strange new surroundings. This can make it a bit difficult to connect with Sophie as a character. Lots of time passes with little action or reflection, and it would have been beneficial to have more of an idea what Sophie was going through. It would be possible to do so, even without dwelling too much Sophie's past, which she is eager to leave behind. I was really looking for more of a sense of wonder from Sophie when truly strange things happened to her. Sophie could have been a bit more vibrant and perhaps the storytelling style could have been less distant and dispassionate. As it is, the plot must entice and carry the reader more than the characters.
For the most part, Sophie, In Shadow is an adventure story with magical elements. At first, life is pretty routine other than tales of the fabulous Alexandra and her antics. As the story continues though, more characters reveal unknown or unusual sides – psychic gifts, jobs as spies, interest in the occult – and this really keeps the story lively. Perhaps these elements were introduced a little late which made this story initially seem like a straight-forward historical novel when it really ends up being a supernatural thriller. I did not see many of the twists and turns of the plot coming, and, while it was enjoyable to be surprised, some themes came out of the blue.
For the most part Eileen Kernaghan avoids the tendencies of many authors writing about Victorian and Edwardian India. She does not overly exoticize the landscape or its people. She does an excellent job of creating this milieu and seeing it through the eyes of a particular girl from a particular time, rather than a current perspective. Sophie’s friendships with Will, a young World War I soldier, and Darius, a young Oxford-educated Indian scientist, are both very realistic and convey much about relations of the time between men and women and between English and Indians. The tension between the straight-laced officials and Sophie’s more unconventional adoptive family shows the intricacies of the politics of British rule in India. Ultimately, Sophie, In Shadow ends up being a fantastic history lesson without ever really being obvious about it.
Kris Rothstein is a children’s book agent and reviewer in Vancouver, BC.
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